Life as a man: International Men’s Day

family law

Tomorrow (November 19) is International Men’s Day, an annual effort to focus attention on such issues as men’s health, our contributions to family and society and those social problems which disproportionately affect the male gender. This year’s key theme is perhaps the biggest and starkest of those: male suicide.

But despite these seemingly laudable aims, since its first appearance in the 1990s International Men’s Day has proved a controversial addition to its much longer established counterpart, International Women’s Day on March 8, which actually predates the First World War believe it or not. Every year the same arguments rage about IMD: should it be celebrated at all, opponents ask? Isn’t every day international men’s day?

This rather trite denunciation – which is bound to make multiple appearances on Twitter this week – is based on one frequently unquestioned assumption: that men are pampered by society and have no real problems to speak of.

As a society we tend to value certain qualities in men: success, confidence, strength, power. We see executive boardrooms, law offices and government ministries full of men and make the reasonable-seeming assumption that if men rule the world then they don’t need any help from anyone.

Meanwhile, we’re equally comfortable with the undermining idea of women as potential victims in need of special help: quotas, shortlists, research grants, government initiatives – the list goes on and on.

We are so used to this powerful men vulnerable women dichotomy that the idea that men might face problems specific to their gender or be victims in some situations is still an uncomfortable and challenging idea for many. Attempts to raise awareness of such issues are frequently met with deep suspicion, accusations of whining or misogyny, or simply dismissal.

But as the International Men’s Day campaigners point out, some uncomfortable facts simply don’t tally with the conventional picture of privileged manhood. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. Meanwhile, the gender gap in university admissions is at a record high – in favour of women. Men die younger on average and are much more likely than women to be the victims of violence, end up homeless or be killed or injured at work.

Family law can bring conflicting male and female perspectives into sharp relief. Many wealthy men throw their wives’ lives into turmoil by suddenly announcing plans to divorce them. And of course they get what they want. But then, months or years later, lawyers report, when the tears have dried and the dust has settled, a surprising number of these men find themselves wrestling with guilt. They withdraw, they start to drink too much, they miss their children.

Meanwhile, more often than not, their erstwhile wives have moved on with their lives, surrounded by their children and supportive friends.

That is, perhaps, still the most widely held image of divorce: the wealthy, caddish husband deserting his hapless wife, a woman who needs the protection of a chivalrous family law system to ensure her welfare. Of course such divorces do happen but the picture is often far less black and white. Something like two thirds of divorces are actually initiated by women and not all those soon-to-be-ex husbands are wealthy. So imagine this: you are married to a stay-at-home mother. One day she announces out of the blue that she wants a divorce. There is nothing you can do to change her mind. A family court judge gives her occupancy of the family home and default care of the children. You of course have to pay both spousal and child maintenance and keep paying the mortgage because she has no earnings. With little left from your average salary, you can only just afford to rent somewhere else for you to live.

And then you sit there in your cheap flat and realise that, through what may be no fault of your own, you have suddenly lost your wife, your home and the joy of seeing your children every day (or indeed ever). But in spite of this devastating loss, you may have to keep paying for all three for years to come.

It’s a pretty bleak picture – and precisely the one faced by many divorced men.

So by all means, let men have their day. I have no patience for the us against them rhetoric that so often characterises discussions of gender in the 21st Century.

Of course women face many challenges and issues of their own but acknowledgement of men’s problems does not detract from those in any way. Life is hard for everyone in different ways.  It is not, and never has been, a zero-sum game, in which, for one gender to ‘win’, the other has to lose.

Photo by Stefano Corso via Flickr

Cameron Paterson

Cameron Paterson is a journalist with an interest in legal matters. He has edited the Marilyn Stowe Blog since August 2012.

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6 comments

Vincent McGovern - November 19, 2016 at 12:10am

Thanks to Marilyn Stowe blog for inviting Cameron Paterson to guest blog. A pleasure to hear the alternative view rather than the John Bolch narrative about how wonderful the system is.

Marilyn Stowe - November 19, 2016 at 9:48am

Dear Vincent
As I’ve made clear especially this week I’m very happy to publish all views subject to the offensive/libel caveat. I think Cameron’s article is terrific. He is an excellent blog editor, pragmatic, measured and very fair. He thinks a lot too, as is clear from this post. It was obviously a great post and he even offered to byline it as if by me he’s such a decent guy.
Regards
Marilyn

Stitchedup - November 19, 2016 at 12:19pm

Not got time to comment fully, on my way to Wales rugby match . Excellent post, a credit to you both.

spinner - November 19, 2016 at 3:46pm

Feminists seem to think this is just deserved punishment for thousands of years of the “patriarchy” which as men obviously we’re all secretly members of. When men stop getting angry with themselves and killing themselves and realise it’s societies fault not their own and get angry with it instead let’s see what happens.

Yvie - November 20, 2016 at 10:02am

The reality of divorce for men on average or below average earnings is more often overlooked than not. After losing the family home, loss of daily contact with the children, spousal maintenance, child maintenance, solicitors fees etc, it can be an uphill struggle for a divorced dad to build a new life for himself. His ex on the other hand gets the family home, benefits, child tax credits, child benefits, plus child maintenance. She may also have a be partner to bring in further income. I seem to remember reading something John Bolch blogged that after a divorced man pays his child maintenance/spousal maintenance, he is ‘free to move on a make a new life for himself’. Get real John, most struggling dads are left with the crumbs following divorce. Even worse, many are eased completely out of the lives of their children.

Andy - November 23, 2016 at 10:51pm

All to often the systems to support fathers are just a smoke scream…in reality the system is to punish all ex fathers wether it was there fault or not in the divorce process…
Yes all comments made are true,the booted out father is now left to rot and no one gives a shit…
Courts seem to favour the crying mother who can’t afford to live,funny that she now has a new skill in benefit form filling in and lieying…very nice…
In support of the universal credit system and inflation busting increase if proven…nice work if you can get it…

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